Monday, December 01, 2008

We ARE doomed! We ARE doomed!

Yesterday I posted a sanguine view of the financial turmoil sweeping over us. There are other views. In this chaos-rich system, as in the climate debate, there are limits to human understanding which lead me to the conclusion that there are no experts, merely points of view.

So here courtesy of Charles Hugh Smith is a pessimistic point of view of the structural realities which have yet to play out:

1. You can't force households or businesses to borrow more money and spend it. Japan's central bank has flooded that nation with liquidity and low interest money for 19 years to little effect.

2. U.S. consumers and corporations are already burdened with staggering debt. Not only can't you force people to borrow more, you also can't force lenders to loan more money to insolvent households and businesses.

3. Whatever money people get their hands on is going to paying down debt and savings. Studies of the first "stimulus package" checks which went out to taxpayers in 2008 revealed that 2/3 of the money was not spent but used to service debt or saved. Future "stimulus checks" will also fail to boost spending; people already have more stuff than they know what to do with.

4. The FIRE economy is dead. Finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) all prospered for one reason: the velocity of transactions and debt instruments. With the volume of transactions off by 2/3 (real estate) or 99% (home equity loans), the FIRE economy is shrinking fast, with no barriers to further declines. With lending standards rising even as real estate values plummet, there is nothing to stop transaction and debt velocity from falling much further.

5. Governments and corporations alike are living with Fantasyland expectations of revenue. I recently pored over the 2009 fiscal year budget of my town of 120,000 people (general fund spending is $135 million, which doesn't include capital projects or bond-funded spending) and was dumbstruck by the insanely unrealistic revenue expectations.

The city expects to reap the same amount of easy money from real estate transfer taxes (1% of any real estate transaction goes to the city) in 2009 as it did in 2007 and 2008: about $11 million.

Huh? As transaction volumes decline by 2/3 and the sales prices plummet, then how can you possibly expect to rake in the same transfer tax revenues?


6. If lenders make risky loans, they will go under--and most U.S. households and businesses are no longer creditworthy risks. So there you have it: This conflict cannot be resolved. Lenders who foolishly extend credit to over-indebted, risk-laden borrowers will be paid back with losses and insolvency, yet as lending standards tighten and assets plummet in value, the number of creditworthy borrowers in the U.S. has shrunk.

As noted here many times: many of those who qualify for loans are dead set against debt. That's why they're creditworthy--they've refused to take on huge debt for cultural or fiscal-prudence reasons. They have zero interest in taking on debt, even at zero interest.

You can't force people to borrow money, especially when they're already overloaded with debt, and you can't force prudent people to borrow when they have no need for more property, nor can you force people to buy real estate even as the values continue falling.

7. The U.S. already has too much of everything: too many hotels, malls, office towers, homes, condos, strip-malls, lamps, furniture, CDs, TVs, clothing, etc. As 50 million storage lockers filled to capacity with consumer crap are emptied in a desperate move to reduce expenses and raise cash, the value of literally everything ever manufactured will fall to near-zero.

The notion that we "need" more of anything: gone, over, toast. The idea that you can force lenders to lend to uncreditworthy borrowers: gone, over, toast. The idea you can force people drowning in debt to borrow more: gone, over, toast.
So, there you have an opposite view. A bit US-centric, perhaps, but after all it IS the largest economy in the world, at least for now. As the US goes, so goes the world? We'll see.

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